The most special part of World Civilizations class was my final project/presentation/paper.
This presentation is about illuminated manuscripts that were characteristic of the Middles Ages and Renaissance. Manuscript simply means “written by hand,” and illuminated refers to the decoration of the text.
Books were made from vellum, which is traditionally animal skin, probably leftovers from butchered animals.
Spreads were cut from the skin, so the size of your book was limited by the size of the animal.
This is also why books are usually taller than they are wide: that was the only efficient orientation to be had from a skin.
Even after the skin is cleaned and stretched and treated, the two sides of the skin have a slightly different color and texture.
It was a point of aesthetic, then, for the spreads to arranged in such a way that pages from the same side of the skin were across from each other.
You can tell from the hair follicles in this picture that this page or folio shows the hair-side.
The people who worked on illuminated manuscripts were highly skilled.
Here you can see a scribe working with a quill pen and a knife. The knife was used for frequent sharpening of the pen, pricking the paper to make identical margins, and for scraping away mistakes on the vellum.
Many scribes roamed – we can see the same styles in widely spread locations.
Some scribes were gifted enough to do all the work on the book, but more often than not, other people were involved. The illuminator would come after the scribe to add the pictoral and decorative elements.
We can tell because sometimes there were “paint-by-numbers” left from one person to another.
It was easy to make mistakes and lose your place in the copying, skip a line, etc. This was especially true when copying Latin, because of all the similar prefixes and suffixes on Latin words!
There were different ways to correct errors:
The first was as they were made, with the knife. But if the scribe didn’t catch his mistake, it was all right, because manuscripts were generally proof-read by a second scribe. If he found extra words that didn’t belong, the proofreader might underline them with a dotted line. This told the reader to ignore those words, without compromising the beauty of the page. If a word needed to be added, the scribe would write it in the margin, and the text could later be scraped away and rewritten to incorporate the missing word.
Here are some examples, with vocabulary indicated.
If you look at the historical accounts, it’s interested to note that the illumination of these books was pretty much taken for granted, and not considered the most important aspect of the work. According to Christopher de Hamel, it was similar to our newspapers today. Someone made all of the design decisions for a newspaper, but no one choosing their newspaper gives much consideration to that – they just want to know that the information is accurate.
The embellishments in manuscripts primarily helped people find their place in long texts that had no chapter or verse markings, and that is the first job of the graphic designer today: to employ visual techniques that convey and clarify information.
At the same time, of course, graphic designers make absorbing information a much more interesting and aesthetic experience.
I feel a huge connection to these artists of the Middle Ages and Renaissance and I hope that my work will show as much grace and attention to detail as theirs does. I’m also very inspired by manuscript treatment of the Bible that we have all but lost today. I believe the Bible contains the most important words that can ever be printed, and that they can inspire endless artistic treatment.
“When the king takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the priests, who are Levites. It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the LORD his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees and not consider himself better than his brothers and turn from the law to the right or to the left. Then he and his descendants will reign a long time over his kingdom in Israel.”
I’ve created my own modern illuminated manuscript page, borrowing some traditional ideas and choosing to be more contemporary in others. The handwriting is after about a week of practice in very traditional script. I have far to go yet, but right now my hand automatically goes into to cursive no matter what I’m writing!
The British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts
Poster by Lorella Pierdicca
De Hamel, Christopher. A History of Illuminated Manuscripts. London: Phaidon, 1994
And finally, find out what my life would have been like as a medieval scribe. This essay is in response to a prompt about choosing any lifespan I want and describing (with historical accuracy) my experience as an artist and a person.